I’d like to wish all who are observing the change in the calendar a healthy, prosperous, safe, and generous New Year!

December:31:2011 - 23:00 | Comments & Trackbacks (3) | Permalink

Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Saudi Arabia, the village of Dhee Ein is unusual. The village shows architecture commonly associated with Yemen, built on an outcropping of white marble. The 400-year-old village maintains its tradition of closing its gates (figuratively) after evening prayer, with no one allowed in or out. But the villagers have come to recognize that they have a valuable cultural artifact, a tourist draw, that is worth preserving. Arab News reports:

Residents join hands to preserve village’s historical character

JEDDAH: Dhee Ein, one of the most unusually situated villages in the Kingdom, is to be saved by its residents.

One hundred men, young and old, who constitute the entire male population of the village, have formed a cooperative committee to preserve the historic character of their village, which was established more than 400 years ago.

December:31:2011 - 09:33 | Comments Off | Permalink

Arab News reports on the arms sale agreement signed between Saudi Arabia and the US. The deal involves aircraft of varying kinds, including helicopters likely to be used primarily for border observation. While the article mentions tensions with Iran, the first effects of the contract won’t be felt until 2014, when upgrading of F-15 aircraft currently in the Saudi inventory begins. Delivery of new equipment won’t begin until 2015. This is definitely not a response to short-term threats, perceived or real, from Iran.

Defense bolstered with $29.4bn arms deal with America

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia has boosted its defense capabilities with a $29.4 billion arms deal with the United States.

The Kingdom confirmed on Friday that it has signed the deal to purchase 84 F-15SA fighter jets.

A Defense Ministry spokesman said the deal includes 70 Apache attack helicopters, 72 Black Hawk helicopters, 36 AH-6i helicopters and 12 MD-530F helicopters as well as upgrading of 70 existing F15 jets.

“The agreement also includes munitions, spare parts, training, maintenance and logistics for several years to ensure high level of defense capabilities for the Kingdom to safeguard its people and land,” the Saudi Press Agency quoted the spokesman as saying.

December:31:2011 - 09:18 | Comments & Trackbacks (7) | Permalink

Saudi Arabia’s new regulations that require the sale of women’s undergarments to be done by female sales personnel only come into effect next week. Saudi Gazette reports that those shops violating the regulation will have their business licenses suspended. Other regulations concerning security measures, customers, and employee dress will be checked via inspection over the coming months, with July being the absolute deadline for compliance on all issues.

Lingerie shops have one week to hire women
Labor ministry warns offices to follow Nitaqat procedures

JEDDAH – Shops selling women’s lingerie have a week – until Jan. 4, 2012 – to hire female workers, said Dr. Fahd Al-Takhifi, Assistant Undersecretary for Development at the Ministry of Labor
“The ministry will suspend services of violators,” said Al-Takhifi in a statement to Al-Watan Arabic daily on Thursday.

Al-Takhifi said the ministry will form an inspection committee to implement the decision and will send teams out on daily visits for a week.

December:30:2011 - 09:57 | Comments & Trackbacks (6) | Permalink

Saudi Gazette, running a story based on news agency reports, says that Saudi women will not need permission or consent of their male guardians in order to run for elective office or to vote in the 2015 municipal elections.

Given the power Saudi males use to control women through guardianship, this is a substantial move. It certainly reduces men’s authority and, as such, is likely to fuel heated debate. We’ll have to wait and see if this liberty is continued to be asserted as election time draws near.

Elections for women won’t need male nod

RIYADH — Women in Saudi Arabia will not need a male guardian’s approval to run or vote in municipal elections in 2015, when women will also run for office for the first time, a Saudi official has said.

The change signifies a step forward in easing laws for women. Shoura Council member Fahd Al-Azi was quoted in Al-Watan newspaper on Wednesday saying that approval for women to run and vote came from the King, and therefore women will not need a male guardian’s approval.

Hatoun Al-Fasi, a women’s history professor in Riyadh, said just the announcement that Saudi women can run for office and vote without permission will stir debate.

December:30:2011 - 09:49 | Comments Off | Permalink

It’s approaching five years since a group of Saudis attacked a party of French tourists, killing the four males in the party and threatening the women. The accused are now in court facing charges that, if proved, will surely result in the death penalty. The ironic part of the story is that those they killed in the name of extremist Islam were themselves Muslims. The group is accused not only of murder, but also a variety of terrorist charges, from supporting Al-Qaeda to promoting takfiri ideology.

14 accused in French tourists’ murder stand trial in Riyadh

JEDDAH: A special criminal court in Riyadh began the trial of 14 suspects accused of murdering four French tourists and threatening their women.

They are also accused of supporting Al-Qaeda terrorist organization and carrying out a number of other crimes.

The trial, which was attended by a French consul and two relatives of the victims, saw the public prosecutor reading out the charges against the 14 defendants.

The first three defendants were accused of being directly involved in the murder that took place in a desert area about 90 km north of Madinah in 2007. The remaining 11 are accused of setting up a terror cell and providing support to the murderers.

During the session, the prosecutor explained the various roles played by the defendants in the crime. They are also accused of opening fire against security officers, seizing cars of citizens at gunpoint and taking money from the ATMs of Saudi-American and Saudi-British banks and possessing weapons and explosives.

December:30:2011 - 09:42 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Saudi Arabia has a distinct issue with men and women being in the same place. Popular thought seems to have it that if the two are in the same place, sex is going to happen. Torrid, illegal sex. And that simply cannot be allowed.

As a result, the country has devised various wide flung schemes to keep the two apart, from sex-segregated schools to separate sections of restaurants that keep men apart from women and families (which may include male members, of course). This separation extends to shopping malls, among the few public, social recreation venues the Kingdom affords its citizens. But, people being people, what is forbidden becomes attractive.

And so, young men, banned from malls, find ways to get into them. It’s a challenge that they’ve accepted, be it for the simple sake of doing what is barred to them or taking whatever scrap of a chance they can find to put themselves in the company of females. Arab News reports on the issue…

Young Saudis invent ploys to enter family-only malls

ABHA: Entering malls and shopping centers have become a real challenge for young Saudi men, who have innovated many ways and means to force themselves inside.

Under the prevailing rules, only women and families are allowed to enter malls. The young men are barred from malls because of fears that they may disturb families. The young men have considered this a challenge that they have to defeat and deal with one way or another.

Many young men dress like women in order to be allowed into the malls. Others bribe the security guard who controls the gates, while a third group pays money to young girls who will give them company to gain access to malls.

Most of these adventures take place over the weekends. Many young men gather at the gates of malls and shopping centers with the hope of being allowed to go inside. “Preventing young men from entering malls represents a real challenge that we have to overcome,” said Saeed Al-Amri, a young Saudi.

It’s sad, really, that millions upon millions of Riyals are spent in trying to maintain this separation. Schools, businesses, banks; restaurants, medical clinics, airport waiting areas… all are duplicated in the name of segregation. It would be far cheaper to teach men (and women, if necessary) that proximity does not equal promiscuity.

December:30:2011 - 09:34 | Comments & Trackbacks (8) | Permalink

Crossroads Arabia will be quiet, if not completely silent, for the next few days. I’m off to Los Angeles for Christmas with my son, who couldn’t get away from work to come East. Spending a few days at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine ought to be entertaining in itself.

December:23:2011 - 07:54 | Comments & Trackbacks (8) | Permalink

Middle East Transparent (metransparent.com), publishes an interesting interview with legendary French banker and founder of Paribas, Pierre Moussa about his recent book, Les 25 empires du désert (The 25 Empires of the Desert) and ‘Arab Spring’.

“The 25 empires of the Desert” after the “Arab spring” …
Pierre Moussa interviewed by Christilla Moustier

In March 2011, at the dawn of the Arab spring, Pierre Moussa published “The 25 empires of the desert” (“Les 25 empires du désert”), a treatise as a complete series of events and issues that made the history of the Near and Middle East in recent thousands of years. History buff, Pierre Moussa, is also passionate about this region that stretches from Iran to Greece and the birthplace of agriculture, breeding, the city, writing, and later the three monotheisms, the alphabet and democracy. For Pierre Moussa, “the human race has lived its teenage years there.”

So as a specialist of issues in the region, Pierre Moussa gives us in this exclusive interview, a retrospective of the events (Arab revolt, rise of Islamism, Palestinian diplomatic offensive, moral crisis in Israel, nuclearization of the Iran, etc.) that shook the Middle East over the last 12 months.

December:23:2011 - 06:21 | Comments Off | Permalink

Are Saudi women gaming the Hafiz unemployment scheme? Arab News explores the issue today noting that unemployment is massive among Saudi women as they are only ‘permitted’ to work in education or medicine. That’s not categorically true as the byline of a female journalist demonstrates, but it is essentially true; women work only marginally in other fields. But many women seem to feel that the unemployment benefits are due them whether or not they’re actively seeking employment, the goal of the Hafiz program. They will be discovered when they reject job placement offers and, according to sources, should and will be punished.

It is remarkable that 80% of the beneficiaries of Hafiz are women. I think the number is probably justifiable given the rate of female unemployment, but the program’s workings are not transparent so it’s hard to tell. The program is not, however, simply a money transfer to Saudi citizens of either sex. It is a conditional benefit that is intended to cover gaps that occur while actively seeking employment.

Hafiz program: Women are major beneficiaries

JEDDAH: With the implementation of the first phase of the Hafiz unemployment program on Dec. 31, 700,000 Saudis will start receiving their monthly allowance.

Reports issued by the Ministry of Labor confirm that the list consists of 560,000 Saudi women against 140,000 Saudi men, a discrepancy that has sparked the debates on unemployment among Saudi women. Some Saudi men accuse women of registering in Hafiz without ever having looked for a job.

Arab News raised the question whether women registered in Hafiz are involuntarily unemployed or if they simply prefer not to work. Do women participate in Hafiz because they are in need of a job or did they find Hafiz a golden opportunity to earn money for doing nothing?

Aisah Natto, a Saudi businesswomen and board member of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), confirmed there were two important reasons for the large number of unemployed Saudi women benefitting from Hafiz.

Saudi Gazette has two articles related to women’s employment. The first concerns an offer of 28,000 jobs in education. The article notes that the offer is conditional, with the condition being that the women be qualified in the academic subject area. That doesn’t seem terribly onerous, frankly.

The second says that women will now be allowed to study Industrial and Electrical Engineering at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, beginning at the start of the next academic year. That’s good news, but will women be allowed to take up jobs in those fields? One can hope…

December:22:2011 - 07:54 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Chatham House, the UK’s top think-tank, has a new report saying that Saudi domestic demand for energy (primarily in the form of electricity) threatens Saudi Arabia’s place in the world oil market. The report (59-page PDF) says that demand is outstripping the Kingdom’s ability to produce enough oil and natural gas AND to continue its programs of social welfare at the same time. The report says that there are some steps the Saudis can take, such as introducing conservation measures, that could postpone a crisis, but that the crisis will hit.

Below is an abstract of the article…

Burning Oil to Keep Cool: The Hidden Energy Crisis in Saudi Arabia
Glada Lahn and Paul Stevens, December 2011

    » Domestic energy demand growth in Saudi Arabia is cause for international concern. If it continues at the current rate, it could jeopardize the country’s ability to stabilize world oil markets.

    » Given Saudi Arabia’s level of dependence on oil revenues, excessive consumption will cause economic and social pressures long before oil exports end – within a decade if nothing changes.

    » Current policies are not enough. Planned additions of renewable power supply would help maintain the fiscal balance for an additional two to three years; given the lead times nuclear power would have little or no impact.

    » Huge economic, social and environmental gains from energy conservation are possible in Saudi Arabia but the long period of low prices and the bureaucratic structure of the state present several challenges to implementing effective pricing policy and regulatory measures.

    » Fear of confronting these challenges has deterred meaningful government action in the past. However, some immediate, targeted investments could produce effective results even in the absence of price reforms.

    » Raising prices is politically difficult but international experience can help in preparing society through a range of efficiency, educational and infrastructure adaptation measures to smooth the transition. This must be done within a package of measures that increase private-sector employment for Saudi nationals.

I think the authors overestimate the time it would require Saudi Arabia to construct and put on line nuclear reactors. The Kingdom does not have a massive regime of regulation, of environmental impact statements and the like, or of worry about finding funding and insurance for a nuclear power plant. In fact, I think the Saudis could, starting from scratch, construct a reactor and have it producing electricity within three years… if it chose to do so. Saudi Arabia also doesn’t have to undertake extensive R&D efforts: it can buy a nuclear power plant almost off-the-shelf. Further, I think GCC efforts to establish a regional power grid will buy time, if not an outright solution, until nuclear power generation becomes standard. Saudi solar power investments will help, but they will not replace other power sources until solar technology becomes much more efficient.

[Thanks to Neils for bringing this to my attention.]

December:22:2011 - 04:00 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink

Saudi Gazette reports that traffic congestion on Saudi Arabia’s streets and roads is resulting in economic losses of SR81 billion (US $21.6 billion). The problem has many causes, from too many one-passenger cars on the road to inadequate maintenance and repair. Hanging over it all is that public transportation in the Kingdom is woefully inadequate. The flouting of traffic laws only adds a layer of chaos to an already difficult situation. Various possible remedies are suggested in the article.

Bottleneck traffic creates a heavy loss of SR81 billion
Amal Al-Sibai | Saudi Gazette

The fifith Riyadh Economic Forum held a meeting a few days ago to discuss transportation problems in the Kingdom. The issue demands considerable improvement in the transportation system.

The traffic crisis has incurred a loss of approximately SR81 billions per year. The division of the estimated loss is broken down into three major components – SR47 billion in traffic accidents, SR28 billion in traffic congestion, and SR5 billion in pollution.

December:21:2011 - 05:51 | Comments Off | Permalink
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